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Letters to Spicer, Patrick James Dunagan

Dear Spicer,

Long ago, poetry moved into my life. Rearranging my affairs to better suit its concerns.

I came to San Francisco more than twenty years ago — that's longer than you managed to stay alive after showing up at Robin Blaser's door in Berkeley; purple junk smeared over your flip-flopped feet for athlete's foot, in a trench coat, "private eye" incommunicado, as Blaser notes. (Not to mention that moustache you sported!) You were around twenty years old then. Ten years after that first meeting, you brought After Lorca out to the bar, San Francisco, and the world. Ten years later, you were dead. Roughly half of your output as a poet — what you indicated as worth keeping and what Blaser brought out as The Collected Books of Jack Spicer — had appeared in print.

I have been reading you for more than twenty years, since coming across Blaser’s Collected Books of Jack Spicer in the library at the University of California, Riverside, of all places. “On a hot day drinking beer outside Riverside.” (“Psychoanalysis: An Elegy”) Near the locale, according to you, where W.B. Yeats’s wife George first heard voices on the train and they gave him “metaphors for his poetry.” One ghost reaching out to another.

After Lorca placed right there at the beginning immediately struck me, like being slapped with a wet fish or a first kiss. Lorca’s introduction is such the tail-spinner, “Frankly I was quite surprised when Mr. Spicer asked me to write an introduction to this volume.” Yes, me too! I thought as the rather mind-numbingly dumb reflection Huh? Isn’t he, uh, dead by the fifties? went tumbling along through my head. Dazed, I read on. “The dead are notoriously hard to satisfy.” Indeed.

I felt wondrously unnerved as I continued reading, your letters to the (yes, deceased) Lorca dropped in here and there. Each poem with its own dedicatee. Most seemingly friends of yours, often younger. You, reprimanding, counseling, advising. Always utterly clear, if encrypted.

Rimbaud is spelled with seven letters of the alphabet
Your heart will never break at what you are hearing
Rimbaud was older than you are when he was dead
Your heart will never break at what you are hearing.
I tell you, darling, beauty was never as old as he was
And your heart will never break at what you are hearing.
(“Ballad of the Seven Passages,” A translation for Ebbe Borregaard)

Your certainty, there from your opening letter, stunned, set me down to work: “Dear Lorca, These letters are to be as temporary as our poetry is to be permanent.” Declaring the letters ephemeral while validating the poems without hesitancy. It was clear I knew nothing of poetry, nothing of love, of friendship.

The poems are there, the memory not of a vision but a kind of casual friendship with an undramatic ghost who occasionally looked through my eyes and whispered to me, not really more important then than my other friends, but now achieving a different level of reality by being missing. Today, alone by myself, it is like having lost a pair of eyes and a lover. (“Dear Lorca, This is the last letter.”)

Two ruddy bowl-faced mirrors gazing across opposite sides of the page. How it goes on, continually, even as the player on one side, if not the other as well, is always destined to be replaced. One cannot read one’s way into eternity. Ghost or no. Hello. Hear that echo.


Dear Spicer,

One only becomes the poet one is intended to become by writing the poems that one must write. Redundantly simple logic but ever so true.

To refuse the derailment of the imagination, insisting upon the Real found in rumpled affairs of trousers or sheets, even of pages sent or not stuck into a drawer.

The poem drawing closer to it those heard answering in kind.

You made Lorca into the poet he always was for you only by your writing After Lorca. Just as the poetry Lorca wrote made him the poet you called forth from the grave. Only poetry makes Lorca the Lorca we know. Without that, Lorca is simply the poor, good-looking Spanish boy gutted by those murderous bastards and buried in an unmarked grave outside Granada. And who would go looking for poetry there?

It is bizarre times as ever. This Dan Chiasson, writing about Bolinas poets, just referred to you as “the San Francisco writer who compared poetry to transcriptions from Mars.” Compared? How do you like them lemons, Jack?  

Meantime, in his introduction to this new edition of Lorca, Peter Gizzi refers only to your “favorite local bar” rather than, say, actually name it. He is referring to Blabbermouth Night, held at The Place, but there is also Gino & Carlo’s where you lorded over pinball. Gizzi also leaves unnamed the neighborhood, not Polk Gulch, the one you lived in, but North Beach, that one you walked to either via the Broadway Tunnel, still walked by this poet today, or climbing the slow grade from an afternoon at Aquatic Park listening to the ballgame on the radio.

The bay, honey, is still there. Although the city changes. The streets updated. What does any of this have to do with poetry? As you well know, poetry happens without explanation. Composed from the poet’s surroundings. The “furniture” the words of the poems come to inhabit.  

I wrote The Duncan Era coming to believe more and more in Blaser’s endeavor, feeling closer to his attempt. Yet all along, I’ve borrowed and learned more from you, of course, especially when it comes to the poems. How when where and why lines break as they do. The orders of the poem underhand have revealed their hand the longer I slept outside your books. Eavesdropping on talk I half-guessed at, half-heard, half-understood but yearned for. To have poems become the real.  “A Poem beyond you.” As you say in the first Vancouver lecture.


Dear Spicer,

Memories. Joanne Kyger reading us your poems, guiding us in reading your poems. It was Billy The Kid and not After Lorca.

Although I do hear hints of Billy in Lorca:

At the heels of a crowd
Of tenuous phantoms.
Near the dead oak tree
Near the dry river
(“The Moon and Lady Death”)

Billy the gypsy you recognized in Lorca. Your love of folk songs, belting them out over KPFA or during readings, the fruit of the poor lemon / is impossible to eat…

Of course, it is your Books plural! which matter, not one in particular over the other. They go together just as poems do, as you said in that overly quoted passage to Blaser in Admonitions: “Poems should echo and reecho against each other. They should create resonances. They cannot live alone any more than we can.”

Joanne always had us write in class and she always had us read aloud in class, round robin fashion, and she always let us know how our reading was. Too fast, too breathy, too star struck, she let us know.    

I’ve been writing you letters for years, as you well know. Usually in the form of poems. For instance, there was that batch that Julien rejected for Ugly Duckling’s 6x6 some, what, twenty(!?!) years ago, is that even possible? Julien and I are close now. He even published Das Gedichtete.

You fall into poetry just as you fall into friendship. Poets of course need not be friends. The work benefits just as well from enemies. Rivalry, even, is often better for the work and/or is the nature of many a perfect friendship. You know this, Jack. Your obstinate head-butting against Duncan and Blaser, for instance.  

As Rilke says, “Read the lines as though they were someone else’s and you will feel deep inside how much they are yours.” (Letters to a Young Poet) I keep forgetting how important a precursor Rilke is to your own work. I do mean to mine.

Like a panther its shadow / stalks my poet shadow. (“Bacchus”: After Lorca)

Testing the limits of how this writing the dead works. You knock. I knock. Who is it that keeps interrupting knocking back?

Nick recently shared this from Russell Fitzgerald’s archive, purportedly written by Joanne: “She came in with great big breasts carrying a basket of poems wrapped like flowers. Spicer gave her such a dirty look she dropped them and ran out.”

Out at Ocean Beach, I hear you in the waves, “Figuring out how to write poems now?” Mocking me. I dig it. Poems do come from the Outside, unannounced, just like that cargo ship now passing beyond Seal Rock toward the Golden Gate. Nothing celestial here. Jack, writing after you is deep diving into the dungeon kind of shit, no looking back. Of course, I look back.



Dear Spicer,

One must first look in order to listen. Your work implies a short life. John Ashbery is boring. That's what allowed him to live long writing so damn much. Dead now. Say hi to John “Thumb Twees” (as you put it) Ashbery when you see him round the yard.

Rich pushes for economy with these letters. I’m being as concise as possible. Poet-to-poet as the pages allows each of us time and place to be.

What special delight you must have felt when singled out by Marianne Moore in her review of Allen’s New American Poetry, having closed Lorca out with the poem “Radar: A postscript for Marianne Moore”:

I crawled into bed with sorrow that night
Couldn’t touch his fingers. See the splash
Of the water
The noisy movement of cloud
The push of the humpbacked mountains
Deep at the sand’s edge.

I wonder what you think of Kevin Killian, that eternal literary playboy, at the heart of all things Spicer these last couple of decades (Gizzi dedicates this edition of Lorca to him). He loved you, you know. So did Lew Ellingham. So does Rich. So does Larry Kearney — his “emotional memoir” nails the nitty gritty eye-to-eye significance of how human all this shit is. Why drinking at the bar mattered. The absolute closeness of the casual opening to deep recognition. “I know you” as Kearney puts it. These boys miss you.


Dear Spicer,

One wants more hours. To write, to look about. Whether the poems ever come doesn’t matter as much as having time matters. Having space. To await the poems so inclined to arrive.

We write to work out these imbalances. That doesn’t mean things balance out.

We walk. We sit. We read. We listen. We have our problems. Our struggles. Our daily affairs. We ask questions.

At that time I’ll imagine
The song
Which I shall never sing.

The poem of one’s own contention is meaningless. “Invention is merely the enemy of poetry.” (“Dear Lorca, these letters…”) The world beyond the poem is unknown. That is what the poem is interested in figuring out. Jack, as you make clear, we must write the poem we would not write had we any say in the matter. Take artifice for the farce that it is, bandied about down at the bar.

It comes down to wanting. More of everything. The endlessness of hauling up short at a wall of want. Letting go of the want but not forgetting how the want felt as it had a hold of you. Becoming the want. Having the want want you. Dawn in the murky world. Tight-gripped clouds over embattled sun. The city purpled up. Less razzle and more shadowy dazzle.

These letters are not a poetics. They are in contention.

As Rich says, “I’d rather be the snarkiest motherfucker ever than smell of anything politic. Criticism is caring!”

I am asking, not insinuating or declaring any intention. I am at odds with myself.


Dear Spicer,

Addressing Lorca you conclude, “saying goodbye to a ghost is more final than saying goodbye to a lover. Even the dead return, but a ghost, once loved, departing will never return.” But where does that leave us, Jack? Am I any less dead than you are, as I write these words bringing you into being? Is this too “in the mainstream,” as Brian would say? Am I merely gimping after you, poorly rehashing prominent points of your work?  

After Lorca is the book of your books. From here, you knew your direction. Lorca was gone. Rilke was gone. You are gone. The Books stand waiting.

What world had you left when you raised your eyes and witnessed After Lorca was there in your hand? What lover lasts longer than the one we place upon the page reading our writing into being? Answering the question: Do I know you, Jack?


Written May/June 2021 on occasion of the NYRB Poets reissue of After Lorca

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

for Rich  

Oh you’ve saved me! I haven’t been able to write since last I talked with you, and now you give me fodder so dear to me. I shall pour over it and get back to you for sure.


Spicer just tries to see [read: reveal] things as they are.

- Richard Tagett, “My Period”

Patrick James Dunagan

Patrick James Dunagan lives in San Francisco and works at Gleeson library for the University of San Francisco. He recently edited Roots and Routes: Poetics at New College of California eds Dunagan, Lazzara, Whittington (Vernon Press) and David Meltzer’s 1965 opus Rock Tao (Lithic Press). His new book of poems After the Banished (Empty Bowl Press) is dedicated to Tom Clark. He reviews regularly for Rain Taxi.

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